Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Josie Rourke
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, David Tennant, Ian Hart, Joe Alwyn, Simon Russell Beale, Jack Lowden, Ismael Cruz Cordova.
The tale of the rivalry between Scottish queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I, has been told on screen many times before, most notably in the lavish but dull 1971 film Mary, Queen Of Scots, which starred Oscar winners Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. This latest version is something of a revisionist take on the story as it suggests that Elizabeth and Mary actually met while she was imprisoned and awaiting her fate. The film is based on Queen Of Scots: The True Life Of Mary Stuart, the revisionist history written by British historian John Guy, and has been written for the screen by Beau Willimon. Having created House Of Cards, Willimon knows a thing or two about political intrigues.
Mary Stuart (played here by Saoirse Ronan, from Lady Bird, etc) has just been widowed when her husband, the king of France dies. In 1561, the 19-year old queen returns home to Scotland, which is under English rule. Mary also gives birth to a child, James, who will become the heir to the Scottish throne. Mary is cousin to England’s powerful ruler Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, from I, Tonya, etc), who is unmarried and childless. Unless Elizabeth produces an heir, Mary will become queen of England upon her death. But Mary is Catholic, and there are many in power in Elizabeth’s court who do not want to be ruled by a Catholic queen, and there are machinations and political intrigues galore. When Mary makes a claim for the throne it sets in motion a chain of events that lead to her being charged with treason, imprisoned and ultimately executed in 1587.
Elizabeth’s face is pocked with scars from the pox and she is jealous of her more younger, beautiful and headstrong cousin Mary. Elizabeth seems easily manipulated by her advisors, chief amongst them the wily William Cecil (an almost unrecogniseable Guy Pearce.) Mary also has her tribulations, with many regarding her with suspicion. She also chooses her allies at court badly and is often let down by them. And the vitriolic, deeply Protestant John Knox (former Doctor Who David Tennant) rails against the power of a female monarch and is incensed that a Catholic is in charge of his country..
Both queens though struggle to assert themselves in their respective kingdoms in a largely patriarchal world. Willimon’s script draws a contrast between the two monarchs and their kingdoms. But his overwrought and melodramatic script also reduces the complex relationships and internecine struggles to broad strokes that somehow lack gravitas.
What should have been a tense tale of plots, backstabbing, and intrigues however is rendered fairly muted by the leaden direction of Josie Rourke, a noted theatre director making her feature film debut with this material. The film has a strong, gritty Games Of Thrones like visual aesthetic with lots of sex and she attempts to give it a contemporary resonance and a strong feminist slant that is perfect for the #MeToo generation.
The production design from James Merifield (The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, etc) is something of a mixed bag. Mary’s palace looks like it was carved out of rock, while Elizabeth’s castle is lavishly adorned. Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne’s costumes feel somewhat contemporary in look and design. The film has been shot in muted, dour colour palette by cinematographer John Mathieson (Logan, 47 Ronin, etc), who replaced Seamus McGarvey at the last minute, although he does capture some stunning scenery of the Scottish highlands when the action moves outdoors. The scene in which the two monarchs meet is shot in a more surreal style in keeping with the fanciful nature of this fictitious contrivance. Max Richter’s score gives the material a melancholy feel.
Rourke draws solid performances from her two leads though and they fittingly dominate the film. Robbie is effective as Elizabeth, portraying her as an ice-cold queen, but also capturing her insecurities, paranoia and neuroses. Ronan delivers another strong performance as the fiery, headstrong, formidable, politically savvy, ambitious and passionate Mary. The supporting cast features the likes of Joe Alwyn, Simon Russell Beale, Jack Lowden, Ismael Cruz Cordova as Mary’s private secretary and confidante David Rizzio, and also a strong Australian contingent, with Pearce particularly memorable as the wily Cecil.
However, this rather bland period piece seems stale in contrast to the recent and far more ambitious The Favourite.